While the use of autonomous machinery is still in its infancy, it will ultimately have a major impact on the structure of the agriculture industry, according to Scott Shearer, chair of the department of food, agricultural and biological engineering at Ohio State University.

Does this mean you’re likely to be the proud owner of an autonomous machine in the near future? Not necessarily. Instead, Shearer predicts farming as a service (FaaS) will soon become a popular AgTech trend. In this model, instead of owning equipment, farmers lease autonomous equipment from companies for a fee. For example, SwarmFarm Robotics in Australia currently leases autonomous sprayers for $60,000 per year, which includes setup and technical support. 

Sabanto Ag in the U.S. is another company taking this approach, using Kubota M5 tractors to autonomously plant crops, operating in shifts of 30-40 hours. As a result, Sabanto founder Craig Rupp says the company’s machinery costs are only 7 cents per hp hour, compared to 25 cents per hp hour in a traditional planting operation.    

In Shearer’s eyes, FaaS won’t be limited to the big boys. He says the concept also makes sense for smaller operations. 

“I believe some of this technology is more scale neutral with smaller equipment,” Shearer says. “Moving big equipment around is not quite as flexible. I think small farmers are going to be able to take advantage of farming as a service just as easily as large farmers take advantage of it.”

The rent or lease approach is also viewed as a potential solution to obsolescence, a common problem considering how long ag machinery tends to last.   

“If new technology comes out 2 years from now and makes your tractor obsolete, you’re not stuck with it for the next 30 years,” Shearer says. 

So, why is Shearer so confident these practices will become more widespread and reshape the industry? For starters, he has first-hand experience seeing the true potential of autonomous technology. He’s working with computer scientists on a system to identify nitrogen deficiency in corn plants. If the computer system can sense deficiency early in the season, the grower can start a rescue application and prevent yield losses. Looking further into his crystal ball, Shearer predicts farming will become more prescription driven as growers use machines to autonomously apply nutrients and pesticides. 

Shearer also points to the investments of major manufacturers as a significant indicator. Earlier this year CNH Industrial closed on a $2.1 billion purchase of Raven Industries. Raven itself had purchased DOT, which developed an autonomous farm vehicle. 

“Precision agriculture and autonomy are critical components of our strategy to help our agricultural customers reach the next level of productivity and to unlock the true potential of their operations,” CNH CEO Scott Wine said after the acquisition. 

Shearer views the U.S. as the current leader in the agriculture technology race and doesn’t anticipate that changing anytime soon.

“The evidence is in big companies buying startup businesses in automation,” Shearer says. “We’re seeing a lot of engineering leadership out of the U.S. with big companies, too.” Even John Deere has gotten in on the trend with its new 8R autonomous tractor.